Are GPs justified in striking over pensions?

Stethoscope by R.Krishnan via Free Digital Photos

GPs and doctors are taking industrial action over proposed government plans to effect structural changes to the pension and retirement schemes. Marking the first time since the 1970s that such a strike has taken place, this action indicates the level of increasing pressure facing the government from public sector workers unhappy with the proposed cutbacks and changes. However is it right that health professionals, earning over  £70,000 per annum, are striking over a new pension ‘package’ that millions of lower-paid public sector workers can only dream of?

GPs on a salary of £120,000 can currently look forward to an early retirement age at 60, a tax-free lump sum of £140,000 when fully retired, and an annual pension standing at £48,000. The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has proposed changes to these conditions, predicted to take effect from 2015. Whilst GPs will receive an increased pension worth £68,000 per annum, they will be expected to work until 68, and contribute more to the pension ‘pot’ during their working life. According to the British Medical Association, one of the largest unions involved in this conflict, emergency, maternity and cancer tests and treatments will remain functional, whilst there will be a severe impact on the day-to-day running of the thousands of practices and hospitals across the country, with routine appointments and GP visits suffering most. The excuse of the unions is that these highly qualified and well paid health professionals feel strongly about changes to both the changes to pension plans and the recent sweeping reforms to the NHS. Yet, there appears to be little support from an unsympathetic public struggling under the combined pressures of increasing costs of living, and decreasing support from the government over both current employment benefits, and future retirement pension plans.

The argument that GPs are not entitled to strike is compelling. Salaries that start at almost three times that of the average earner in Britain entitles the GP or doctor to a much higher and luxurious standard of living than is experienced by millions of equally hard-working public sector workers. A large proportion of these workers can expect to be working far beyond the current retirement age for GPs of 60; and with much decreased pensions to live on for what seems likely to be another score of years.  The further benefit of receiving £140,000 tax-free as a government ‘golden handshake’ sweetens the deal, and leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and emergency services who receive no such severance subsidy. Add to this the golden cash-cow that the NHS has until recently proven to be, and the general refusal of GPs to conduct home visits, and the case looks to be open and shut.

However, before the lynch mobs are called in, it is worth remembering the sacrifices those GPs and doctors make in their training to become such a highly paid professional. Seven years of minimum study can often translate into two decades of training to reach the summit of the pecking order, with most medical graduates amassing debts of many tens of thousands through their extensive training to medical excellence. People who devote their lives to helping countless patients with theirs should, it is arguable, be justly rewarded after forty or fifty years of service to medicine. The hours that many GPs work are considerably longer than the average working day, and can often stretch to 65+ hours a week. With massive restructuring to the NHS, opposed by the majority of health professionals and workers, it is understandable that the pressure to adapt and change is being heaped on in ever-increasing loads. Is this proposed change to pensions proving to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? It appears to be the case!

It is evident that there is a case for GPs to be striking in protest of the changing environment. However, the wrong motives for striking are proving to be an obstacle in gaining public support for the move. It is true that GPs and doctors are an immensely valuable asset to the NHS, and are among the worlds best at their jobs.  Yet to sniff at a pension plan that is not only exceedingly generous considering the financial climate but is still leaps above the average pension has made the health profession exceedingly unpopular; making calls to halt changes to the NHS harder to listen to from people considered not to be in touch with the real world. The massive economic difficulties facing the UK and world economies as a whole are being tackled head on, and there cannot be one public area sector that is immune to making sacrifices to the (rightly or wrongly) austerity-indicated approach that the rest of the workforce are being subjected to. GPs should bite the proverbial bullet, and weather out the storm on their more ‘modest’ wages.